Making Art After September 11, 2001
by Svetlana Mintcheva
The immediate response to the events of September 11, 2001 was a degree of anxiety as to the relevance of art to an irretrievably changed world immediately followed by an insistence on its healing function. Assaulted by the traumatic scene of the collapsing World Trade Center towers we all found solace in classical harmonies. Our existence thrown out of joint by the gaping wound in our sense of security, we sought asylum in beauty. It was a time to grieve, to integrate the traumatic moment of disruption, to make sense of what stubbornly remained senseless. Art- both art in the galleries and popular expression in public spaces- took upon itself the task to express our grief and give us a sense of community in this time of crisis.
But now is a time when we are redefining our world and determining our common future. If we suspend the freedom to talk about sensitive issues, to voice unpopular opinions, we might be suspending it for a very long time. It is hard to think this way when all we want is to return back to normalcy- which means returning to how things were before September 11, 2001. Yet a return is not possible. We need the beauty, comfort, and emotional replenishment art offers, but we also urgently need to face the real world- not only when we exit the museums and galleries, but in the museums and galleries.
The sensitivity- often somewhat overzealous-displayed in the wake of a traumatic event could quite easily slip into a permanent freeze on non-conformist expression, where art's business would be not to offer new understanding but only to console and distract.
Sharon Paz's exhibit, Falling, consisting of cutouts of human silhouettes falling through mid-air, spoke of human fragility, of the pull of our material bodies versus the soaring of the spirit, of tragedy and daily life. It reminded me of Bruegel's painting, The Fall of Icarus, where the tiny little figure of Icarus falls against an intensely blue sky, while peasants are going about their daily chores.
Displayed on the anniversary of the WTC attacks, Falling also reminds of the stunning and heartrending sight of people jumping of the towers: a sight that is forever engraved in our collective memory. The association with that unforgettable moment in time, however, made some people insist that the work should be taken down. Why? Because they felt the right not to be reminded? But could one ever forget?
Erasing a tragic moment from artistic representation would not make it go away. In fact, some of the most memorable artwork was built out of tragedy and was a way of confronting it. Reducing art in public spaces to what is just decorative and affects nobody would not make tragedy easier on the spirit. On the contrary, it will further alienate public life from individual experience.
The paradox is that a lot of censorship in art derives from attempts to avoid hurting people, but ends up just helping them deny their feelings.
Arts Advocacy Project Coordinator
National Coalition Against Censorship
SharonPaz: Falling (detail), 2002